Let’s just acknowledge that The United Methodist Church is in a wilderness. In his book, A Way through the Wilderness, my colleague the Rev. Rob Renfroe writes, “In the Scriptures, wilderness is used to describe a time in a person’s life when his or her soul is parched and dry; when today is hard and the future appears barren; when as far as you can see there is nothing but devastation, and you wonder if you’ll find a way out.”
With the postponement of General Conference, decisions about the future of the church are on hold. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted church ministry. The ongoing and accelerating decline of membership and attendance in United Methodism in the U.S. increases the uncertainty – will the people who stopped coming to church during the pandemic ever return? The future is uncertain, and the present is just plain hard. Add to that situation places where traditionalists are berated, ostracized, or even outright persecuted in our own church! There are days when the situation seems hopeless, when it seems like General Conference will never be held, and when it seems like the Protocol will never be adopted or the proposed Global Methodist Church formed.
The Israelites experienced the wilderness after they had left Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land of Israel. Designed to be a several-month experience of preparation, their wilderness experience turned into 40 years of waiting and wandering. (At least so far, our wilderness experience is only supposed to last 2-1/2 years!)
Renfroe explains, “The wilderness is that time when we learn the lessons that God has to teach us ‘old school’ – that is, through suffering and persevering and trusting in a God whose plan we cannot comprehend and whose presence we may not feel. But there’s no school like old school, and there’s no place like the wilderness for growing in faith. In spite of its pain – actually, because of its pain – the wilderness is a place of great opportunity. It’s where God can teach us life’s most important lessons.”
Why the Wilderness?
As Renfroe reminds us, “God uses the wilderness to prepare his people. God uses the difficult, desperate times of our lives to teach us important lessons and develop our character, making us into the image of his Son, so that we will be ready for the future and equipped to be his instruments in a hurting and broken world.”
God used the wilderness to transform the Israelites from a people who knew only generations of slavery into a united nation, equipped to take the Promised Land and live as God’s chosen people, glorifying him through their faithfulness and obedience. In the same way, traditionalists are being prepared during this in-between wilderness for the decisions that will form a new Methodist denomination. We will need to form a new cohesive community and a new identity.
Renfroe teaches that the wilderness prepares us to receive God’s blessing and to engage in the spiritual battles that lie ahead. For the Israelites, the “land of milk and honey” could only be possessed through warfare that conquered the land. Traditionalists face many spiritual battles in the months and years ahead in order to realize the dream and vision of a Methodist church that is wholeheartedly faithful to Scripture and exhibiting Christ’s love in a culture that is growing more hostile to God’s ways.
The Israelites thought their wilderness would last only a few months. They never dreamed it would take 40 years to get through. Traditionalists thought that the 2019 General Conference had resolved our conflict, only to find out more wilderness times lay ahead. The end date of our wilderness has repeatedly moved. But short time or long, the important thing is to learn the lessons God has for us in the wilderness. Sometime, we can get so focused on getting out of the wilderness that we get nothing out of being in the wilderness.
Playing the Blame Game
According to Renfroe, we can wind up in a wilderness because of our own choices and actions, because of the actions and choices of others, through the natural flow of life’s changes, or because it is God’s plan for us. One of our favorite pastimes in the wilderness is to try to figure out why we’re here. Who’s to blame for us being in this unpleasant and difficult situation?
With regard to our United Methodist situation, it is not productive for us to play the blame game. It only ends up distracting us from focusing on what we need to learn and do during this in-between time. Blaming others or even God for putting us in this position alienates us from the very resources we need to survive and thrive in the wilderness.
I’m sure Joshua and Caleb were tempted to be angry and blame the rest of the leaders for discouraging the people from entering the Promised Land, delaying their own entry by a whole generation. If the Israelites hadn’t been so fearful, Joshua and Caleb would have been building their houses and establishing their families in their new towns 40 years before it actually happened! It’s tempting for some traditionalists to blame traditionalist leaders for not doing more to “fix” the situation we are in and to enable us to move forward into a new reality. If only traditionalist leaders were more aggressive, or took legal action, or issued ultimatums, or did this strategy or that strategy, we would be out of the wilderness by now! We need to recognize that everyone is doing the best they can under very challenging circumstances, and that we all seek the same goal. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback, but blaming others distracts us from getting the most out of this wilderness experience.
What We Can Learn
As Renfroe points out, God’s overarching goal is to form in us the character of Jesus. WWJD is more than just a slogan – it should be the aim of our lives to live as Jesus lived. “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (I John 2:5-6). The pressure of the wilderness can reveal more readily those areas of our lives and character that are not fully submitted to the Lord. This pressure test can help us identify where we need to grow in our Christian walk.
The wilderness can teach us the importance of brothers and sisters who can walk through the wilderness with us. We cannot survive the wilderness alone. One of the primary actions we can take during this wilderness time is to forge connections with other traditionalists at both the personal and congregational level. If we are going to be in a new church together, we can start living into that reality right now. Identify other traditionalist clergy and congregations and work to connect with them. Support and encourage each other. Dream together what ministry might look like in the Promised Land.
The wilderness can help us work on forgiveness. Many of us have been hurt by others in this struggle for the soul of our church – both “enemies” and friends. We need to release those hurts through forgiveness in order to be ready for what comes next. We don’t want to carry the burden of anger or bitterness into the new denomination. Forgiveness is a process, and the wilderness is designed to help us through that process of letting go.
At the same time, the wilderness can teach us to let go of the right to judge or correct those who oppose and criticize us. We don’t have to be responsible for correcting those who disagree with us. God can handle that. We are called to be faithful to God and his word in our teaching and in our lives. There may be times when we need to correct misinformation that is spread about us. But we are not called to change other people’s minds. That actually takes the pressure off of us. We can winsomely present the truth of God’s word as we see it and then let it be between the other person and God. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:5-11). Let’s not usurp the Holy Spirit’s job!
The wilderness can teach us the importance of deepening our relationship with the Lord. When everything else we lean on is taken away, God is there with us and for us. Despite appearances to the contrary and despite adverse circumstances, we can move forward with confidence that God is guiding our steps and will lead us to the destination he has for us. This is what real faith is about – not just articles of belief, but living in complete dependence upon the Lord.
That means not neglecting what we call the spiritual disciplines. In the wilderness, even when we don’t feel like it, we have to eat the spiritual food God prepares for us. We can pray and read the Bible daily. We can join our Christian family in worship at least weekly. We can share our lives and struggles with fellow believers. We can avail ourselves of Christian books, podcasts, and sermons. We can do what we can to nurture the flame of the Spirit who lives within us. God will do the rest.
Forty years ago, it was popular to focus on the imminent return of Christ. One line from a song popular at the time is, “I wish we’d all been ready.” The wilderness time we are going through right now is our chance to get ready. It has been a blessing to the many who are forming the skeleton and flesh of a new denomination, so that it will be ready for us to occupy when the Protocol is adopted. But it can also be a blessing to our congregations and to each one of us individually, that we can allow God to prepare our hearts for the battles and blessings that lie ahead. Let’s not waste this opportunity to learn what God has for us.
If you are interested in exploring how to survive and thrive in your own personal wilderness, I highly recommend Rob Renfroe’s book, A Way through the Wilderness . The book and small group study resources are available on Cokesbury and Amazon.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.